Why do international students go to China?

With the increased standing of Chinese universities in international rankings, there has been a corresponding increase in students moving to study in China. Nowadays, China hosts a little less than 10% of all international students and this figure is likely to rise.

As an example, the aim of the Institute of International Education is to have 100,000 American students studying courses in China by 2014.

President Barack Obama’s motivation for sponsoring the programme is to have more Chinese-speaking Americans who know China, apparently to match the large numbers of Chinese students studying in the United States, learning to speak English and to know America.

Top Chinese universities such as Zhejiang, Peking and Tsinghua accommodate more modest numbers – around 3,000 each annually – of overseas students, increasingly from non-Asian countries.

Although all three have significant programmes delivered in English, as do most of the aspirational universities, there has also been a substantial increase in the number of international students studying for degrees that use Chinese as the medium of instruction.

Joint venture providers

One subset of international students studying in China comprises those studying at joint venture higher education providers operating within Chinese borders.

Whereas there are thousands of 'jointly badged' courses available in China, there are only a handful of hybrid institutions operating on dedicated campuses – with the actual number depending on your definition of a joint venture higher education institution.

The least contentious are the University of Nottingham and Zhejiang Wanli University’s operation at Ningbo, the Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University collaboration at Suzhou and the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology's cooperative venture with a consortium of nine UK universities – generally referred to as the Sino-British College – in Shanghai.

Further, there is a postgraduate institution run jointly by Monash University and Southeast University also in Suzhou. Duke University and Wuhan University have received permission to develop a joint venture on a campus in Kunshan.

Tightly controlled

These new institutions are tightly controlled by national, provincial and local administrations and exist principally to advance higher education for Chinese students in China, most often to allow local students to graduate with internationally recognised degrees without having to leave the country.

As a measure of their success, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, or UNNC, currently has more than 8,000 students.

However, joint venture institutes are also attracting increasing numbers of international students. They too can graduate with internationally recognised degrees – and often at substantially less cost.

Taking advantage of the current exchange rates, the cost of living differential and institutional fees, a British student studying for an engineering degree at the University of Nottingham can save herself thousands of pounds, as well as enjoying a protected international experience and acquiring an arguably better quality education, by relocating to the UNNC campus.

But not only British students are taking advantage of joint-venture providers. UNNC also attracts students from Russia, Kazakhstan and Indonesia, as well as a sprinkling from most European, South American and North American countries. The numbers coming from Africa and the Middle East are also slowly rising.

So, what makes a student decide to relocate to a relatively unknown Chinese city like Ningbo for their tertiary education?

A British degree

An analysis of data shows that international students refer to three common factors in their decision-making processes when considering whether to enrol in UNNC courses.

The most influential of these factors is the end product of a British degree. The second most influential consideration is the appeal of spending time in China for reasons separate or complementary to academic ambitions. Third is the quality of the courses on offer at UNNC.

The data suggests that this hierarchy is widespread among the international student cohort and that it is only slightly affected by either the course of study selected or the country where the student did secondary schooling.

These results both support and contradict previous studies that found international students in the United Kingdom ranked the quality of the education on offer as the most important criterion in their decision-making processes that led to them studying overseas.

This study tends to suggest the emphasis lies on the United Kingdom part rather than the quality part. However, previously the population was mainly Asian students – principally from China and India – whereas the current study has a population mainly drawn from English, Russian and Indonesian students.

Further studies that consider the decision-making patterns of Chinese students who enrol at UNNC may move the results closer to those found in other studies.

Any such study must be very circumspect in suggesting that its conclusions are more widely applicable than this particular instance.

As well as bearing in mind that the data was generated by responses to a survey that were post hoc recollections after varying time periods, each joint venture institution has an individual and distinct agreement with the government of the province in which it is located, and as such will have varying operational practices.

As an example, in this instance the University of Nottingham Ningbo China has particular relationships with its ‘home’ campus in the United Kingdom; with Zhejiang Wanli University, its Chinese partner institution; and with the Ningbo Education Board. Each places varying demands and expectations on UNNC, which in turn gives it a unique and distinct character.

Currently the numbers are small, but nonetheless such statistics, spin and puffery are the basis for the mutually beneficial relationship with the Ningbo Education Board – a relationship that itself is an area for further research and analysis.

* Andrys Onsman is adjunct associate professor at Monash University and a lecturer at CSHE-ABP in Melbourne University. He published a full article on his findings in the current edition of The Australian Universities’ Review, volume 55, number 2.